April Came Early

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April in March

April came early this year. Weeks ago, we had the long, snow-bright evenings and the warm afternoons with slick trails that characterize my favorite month in the Arctic. There has to be a word for this time of year in Gwich’in. I will ask Albert, someday. Birds start to appear, the little songbirds that seem to erupt from nowhere – how do they survive the winter? – and it’s finally time to ski – I have the bruises to prove it: I wiped out spectacularly last weekend.

Right now, my tent overlooks the Junjik valley. It’s positioned so that we can spy on the overflowing river valley with binoculars, can see Nitsih Ddhaa from our sleeping bags, and so that every pop of the lively ice below echoes through our camp. It’s also halfway up a little mountain.

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We headed out to camp last Saturday night after Geoff welded his snowmachine back together (His Skandic has been falling to pieces this spring. Every time we go out it’s something new – a swing arm, a belt, an exploded bearing, a broken exhaust… Sassy Bravo has been reliable, except for – ehrm – user error and the headlight thing, and what’s the point of fixing that now, anyway, when we have some fifteen hours of daylight?). I skied out ahead with the dog loose beside me. The creek at the border of the refuge was overflowing and drenched with the pink of the evening sky. I picked a path across, careful to keep my skis dry, and slogged through the thigh-deep drift on the far bank to regain the trail. Daazhraii and I skied on – I love how I lose myself in the slip and glide of it all as the light fades from the snow – and I changed into my heavier gear when Geoff caught up, a few miles down the trail on Cargo Lake.

The moon rose full and yellow in a notch to the east as we floated up the Chandalar valley. It vanished behind the mountains and then rose again above them, irrepressible as a hot air balloon. In the long moonlight, I alternated staring out into the crosshatched night-woods, looking for caribou, and resting my cheek against Geoff’s back. It is still thirty below at night, and the wolverine ruff of his jacket is a soft shelter from the wind of travel. The lullaby hum of the engine, the glide of the track and the perfect unreality of the landscape in the moonlight make something like a magic carpet ride of the arctic night. Refuge indeed.

We crossed over two rivers and passed the open water in the Junjik, then climbed the steady, messy trail up the hill to the tent. At camp we discovered that someone had been there in our week’s absence, at least long enough to build a little fire and warm up. They zipped the tent all the way when they left, and added to our wood-pile. Later, Geoff found their trail to our north: two or more people hiking with sleds.

On Sunday, the wind blew steadily all day. Geoff took off to the north to break trail up the valley, and I stayed in camp, stitching a little on my beadwork, chopping firewood, listening to the wind hissing through the cold, skinny trees, and packing our gear. When he got back, Geoff went into the tent to thaw out and I slipped off on my skis toward town.

The wind was at my back, and on the better sections of trail I flew. It’s just that it’s such a long way down the mountain. Most of the downhill bits are ruts, paired with a little uphill at the end, so you don’t go too fast. There are sticks and willows that can snag skis, and bits where the trail splits or wavers over gullies. There was one long, straight section of trail that had no speed bumps. I saw it coming, knew I’d get going too fast, but I felt agile and bulletproof in my heavy winter gear and didn’t care. I kicked off and glided out and down, the wind pressing my blue windbreaker into my shoulders and my headlong rush pressing it into my chest. I accelerated, and the light glared hard off the snow into my squint. For long seconds I was rushing over the trail at what had to be the hull speed of my poor skis. I could feel every twig in the trail punching the hard soles of my boots. I made the first little curve, barely, and whistled on over another long, straight stretch. I dodged a willow wicket, a pothole. I pounded on and down, faster and harder until my knees ached. The wide valley below rose up, white and splendid, and then the second curve came, too sharp, too fast, and I bit it like a rhino on ice skates.

The valley floor was in my face, down my front. I stood up and the snow still reached my hips. I’d lost a ski. I had to unzip my bibs to empty the snow from my pants. The radio had flown out of my fanny-pack and landed down the trail a ways. The dog looked on, a little perturbed, the wind ruffling his pricked, concerned ears. I stagger-waded over and climbed up to the trail, picked up the radio, and dug around in the deep snow until I got lucky and unearthed my ski. Clipped in, I skied on across the flatter, more ski-friendly valley as far as the Junjik. Geoff picked me up on the river ice.


Some of you out there might know that I applied to the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, for an MFA in Creative Writing. Some of you might also know that I was accepted and offered a TA-ship, with attendant tuition waiver, stipend and medical. A few of you know how hard it was for me to decide what to do with that choice. In the end, after grappling with it and getting nowhere, I flipped a coin.

Tails.

I’m teaching in Arctic for one more school year; teaching, skiing, sewing, writing, cooking, kissing, fighting, chopping, boating, picking, building, shooting and living for one more year. I deferred, and I will be a student at UAF in the fall of 2019. With luck, I’ll be able to reapply for a TA-ship and receive a similar funding offer. And I am awfully lucky: look at where I get to spend the next year of my life.

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Snow-puppy and his Isolation Distress

It was a beautiful afternoon. The moon rose at three or so, just as the light was fading. I rode the Sassy White Bravo out toward the creek to give the dog a run and to practice breaking trail in the deep snow (you lose your steering and have to lean to make turns. And don’t ever stop moving because you will sink and then you’ll have to shovel snow out from on top of your skis. I am not great at this, but I am trying to improve). The moon was enormous on the horizon: too big, like an alien spaceship lurking behind the mountains.

I got back from my ride and I couldn’t resist strapping on my ski boots and my gaiters and going for a slide around the loop, just to keep watching that moon, maybe to kind of keep an eye on it in case it had sinister intent. When I got back from skiing, I harnessed the dog and he pulled me around the loop one more time. It was that kind of afternoon. I just couldn’t get enough.

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Yeah, that’s like 3:30 pm or something.

I love that I have Daazhraii to count on when I want to go out. He’s a total chicken, (he is scared of fireworks and little girls) but having someone with me – even someone who is absolute yellow-bellied poultry – still eases the anxiety that comes with wandering the arctic night alone. Geoff wanted to stay in tonight (he doesn’t care for skiing anyway) but I didn’t have to go out by myself. I had my snow-puppy right there waiting, begging me with those big brown eyes and that floppy lolling drooly tongue to just please open the door and let that cool comfy air float in, or, better yet, let him go out. I put on my boots and he started to dance. He is great company. daazhraii by the door

The flip side to great company is crushing loneliness, at least for the dog. He has what I guess is called isolation distress: he gets anxious when he is alone. Any company will do, but solitude is unacceptable. He barks and cries and tears things up. He’ll do it for hours and hours. It’s not a behavior issue, it’s an emotional response that’s out of his control. He does things when he’s alone that he has no inclination to do when he has company. Leaving a shirt with my smell on it doesn’t work – he just shreds it in his panic. Playing music, stuffing toys with treats for him to extract, none of it helps. He won’t touch his food when he’s alone. He can’t be left in vehicles: this summer he ate Geoff’s front seat and my best friend’s husband’s head rests. He ate one of my bunny boots (see the above photo) and a thermometer when we left him in the house about a month ago. He sometimes breaks out of kennels, which I guess is better than chewing his own fur off, which some dogs with this problem apparently do when they have no other outlet. If he can’t break out, he’ll cry nonstop for hours and soak the door and the floor around his kennel with slobber. It’s awful to see him panicking like that, but it’s impossible to have him with us all the time.

I wish there were more that I could do. The internet professionals suggest slowly desensitizing him by leaving him for increasing amounts of time, starting with just a few seconds and working up to hours over the course of several weeks. The problem there is that leaving him for a longer time during that therapy period can undo any progress he makes. We can’t take six or eight weeks off from work to practice leaving the dog alone and in the summer we travel constantly. I hope he can benefit from this protocol someday, but right now it’s not realistic. Some people drug their anxious dogs, but I’m not quite there yet. I’ve thought about getting him a friend – when loose dogs visit, he calms down immediately – but one dog is a lot of work and I’m not sure I’m ready to take on another, complete with his/her own unique challenges. Besides, it might not help.

For a while, earlier in the fall, he was in a kennel right outside my classroom window during the school day. That was fine. He’d sit comfortably in his kennel, watch the world go by, listen to my voice through the window, and never make a peep. We started slowly moving the kennel and got him comfortable with a spot just outside of teacher housing. Unfortunately, the school district directed us to remove him from school property (in most places, this would make sense, of course, but in this village it is pretty ridiculous. There are loose dogs everywhere). Now we have him across the lot on a run, and he is not happy. In fact, he’s panicked. The barking drives everyone nuts – the maintenance guy, who has to work outside, has walked out over the incessant yelping at least once, and I can’t blame him. We keep Daazhraii at school where I can see him from my window because I’m terrified that if we left him alone on a run at the house, someone would get sick of his yelping and just walk up the driveway and pop him with a .22.

It’s challenging, and it has sometimes seemed like there’s no answer. There was a while in early December where I was missing school days to keep the dog company. Is it a sick day if I’m sick at heart? If it’s me or the maintenance guy? Magically, in the last few weeks, Daazhraii has started calm down, even remaining quiet for half-hours at a time during school and chilling in his dog house. He’s started to howl instead of yelp, too, so things aren’t quite so bad. The howling is pretty cool, actually. Cross your fingers and hope he continues to improve.

When we’re in Fairbanks, there are some different challenges. We can’t leave him in a hotel room, and we don’t like to leave him unattended in the car for long. Geoff and I have found that if we give him a good run before we leave him in the car, he is less likely to eat the seats while we grocery shop. This is not a guarantee, by any means, but it meant that we had a good incentive to take him out and work him every day when we were in Fairbanks last week. We played a lot of football on the lakes out by the airport.

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I love my dog. He is gorgeous, obviously, but he is also affectionate, smart, sensitive, willing, hilarious, expressive, and strong. When he’s with his people, he’s mellow, attentive and sweet. He’s so quiet that I sometimes have to look around and check to make sure he’s in the cabin at all. He has learned some fifteen or twenty commands – my personal favorite is “gimmeakiss” – and his manners are excellent. I have taught him to wait for an okay before going through doors or starting in on his dinner. He rings a bell at the door to be let out. He likes to play tug-o-war and keep-away. He often lies with his chin just barely on the tips of someone’s toes. He likes to lie on his back with his spine in a crescent and his back legs spraddly. In the morning, Daazhraii jumps up onto the bed and burrows under my neck with his wet nose and leaves snail-trails of dog boogers all over my face. He likes to nibble my ears and chin. When we go out for rides on the sno-go or for walks or skis or runs, he bounds around exuberantly and throws up snow in great big sprays, that huge tongue lolling, those legs kicking out, that tail fluttering and floofing, those ears swiveling and pointing. It’s impossible not to melt a little inside.

My friend Kristie took these next two pictures, and they are some of my favorites.

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This one is in the tent at camp. That’s Daazhraii’s happiest place: he’s free to roam outside and he knows right where to find his people. I love his dog-smile in this photo.

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One of his cutest habits is burrowing into the snow. He’s always got a white face-mask when he’s outside. He just goes for it in the deep snow, diving like a porpoise. It’s totally charming.

There was a time in my life when I swore I’d never get a dog. There were at least thirty reasons, and half of them were “poops in yard”. That’s the least of my problems, it turns out now. I sometimes feel like a hypocrite, but I never regret bringing him home, even when I’m lost in a hopeless spiral, wondering if Daazhraii’s crying will be the straw that finally gives that extra leverage to the folks who want Geoff out of the village or wondering if someone will decide to take their issues with Geoff or me out on the dog.

He’s wonderful, even if he is imperfect, and I’m not so surrounded by good company that I can afford to reject someone who loves me just because he’s a little bit crazy.

No one else would have gone skiing with me tonight, and that’s worth everything. He’s an amazing animal in his element here, doing what his ancestors were bred for and loving it. He helps me to be my best self, to go out and soak up the moonrise, and he makes me stupidly happy, so I’ll put up with his eating my boots and crying from lonesomeness and love him madly anyway.

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How could you not?

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Also: If you’re out there dealing with separation anxiety or isolation distress with your dog, I get it. It’s horrible and agonizing. I have a huge amount of respect for those folks who find a way to manage this issue with composure and compassion for all involved.

Venetie Volleyball

On Thursday, six kids from Venetie flew to Arctic Village to play volleyball. We’ve been planning this for a while with their principal, and I’ve been looking forward to it since it was just the germ of an idea.

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Venetie and Arctic have a complex relationship. They are partners in land ownership and governance, but there is some animosity between them. Arctic gets a lot of visitors and attention from outside, and I think there’s a perception in Venetie that Arctic is kind of stuck up. Venetie is a rougher village. There seems to be more crime and drinking and ugliness there (though I am not convinced that this is as it seems). Arctic kids grow up with an aversion to things Venetie. When I wore my Wolfpack hoodie this fall, they would call me a “mutt” and make rude comments about people from Venetie. The kids from the two villages snipe at each other over social media, even though they have hardly met in person.

I love those Venetie kids wholeheartedly. I latched on to them over the year and a half I was their teacher, and they mean the moon to me. When kids here say unkind things about them (people from Venetie suck: so and so is mean) I take it pretty hard. This visit was an opportunity to chip away at that prejudice a little.

Thursday, we mixed the groups and played Shipwreck, a team building game where you have to get everyone on your team across the gym before the other team. The challenge: the floor is lava. We gave them tools, (rope, hula hoops, a single roller skate, a scooter) and we set up a few islands. It was great watching them solve problems and come up with creative ways to use the items.

Later, we had them work in teams to make and clean up after a shared dinner, and after dinner we opened the gym for casual volleyball for a few hours. Geoff and I had ordered a glow-in the dark ball, and I had all the kids sign it with highlighters. We set up black-lights on the stanchions and passed out glow sticks for wristbands, then turned out the gym lights. It was pretty spectacular. G’s teeth glowed in the blacklight.

Friday was tournament day, and there was a lot to do, but we took the afternoon off from preparations to get out and enjoy the suddenly warm (-15?) weather. I set some kids up with skis during PE and Geoff set some others up with snowboards. At 1:30 we headed out to the lake. The truck dropped us off beyond the airport, and we skied or walked the rest of the way.

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I skied, and it was blissful. It’s been too cold to ski most of this winter, not because I’m a pansy but because there’s a temperature at which skis just stick instead of gliding. I pulled ahead of the kids and took a picture of them all trekking in the snowmachine trail across the lake to the spot Geoff had chosen for a fire.

dsc05375Geoff drove his snowmachine back and forth, picking up kids in the sled and hauling them out to the fire. I bummed a ride down the lake and back once, before all the kids lined up to try it, whether on snowboards or skis. L was awesome on a snowboard. dsc05384They heckled Eddie, the principal from Venetie, until he got on a snowboard and gave it a try. C, a 7th grader from Arctic, rode backwards on the machine behind Geoff, giggling. The kids kept a great fire going the whole time, and heated water for tea. Everyone had a blast, and no one complained about the long walk out or the chilly ride back to school in the back of the truck.

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We were all exhausted by the time we got back to school, but the day’s activities weren’t done. I led a team in pizza-making, and sweet P from Venetie made cake for everyone to share.

After dinner, the moment was finally upon us. We scrambled to figure out the scoreboard, find a whistle, and organize the kids into reasonable teams (we had to have two teams from Arctic). At 7:30, the games began.

Folks from the village showed up and cheered for both teams, which made me glad. I admit to secretly cheering for the Venetie kids: I could see their nerves, their courage, and their determination clearly on their well-loved faces, whereas the Arctic kids were perfectly relaxed and at home. All the kids played great games, with Venetie losing to both Arctic teams by only a point or two.

After the two schools played, a village team was organized, and they played a few games against mixed student teams. I like that the kids ended the volleyball tournament by playing together. It reinforced what the trip was supposed to be all about (in my mind).

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The kids stayed and watched a movie in my classroom until midnight. I was dragging by that time, completely done-in by the long days. When the Arctic kids finally went home and the Venetie kids finally headed to bed (“bye,” said G as the Arctic kids put on their snowpants in the hall, “it was really nice to meet you”), I was more than ready to get home and into my warm, blessedly horizontal bed.

In the morning, I went over to the school to have breakfast with the Venetie kiddos before the plane came. They were still sleeping when I got there, so I got to read the note they’d written on my board and leak some tears before they woke up.

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A few Arctic kids showed up for breakfast, but they didn’t stay long, so I got to spend a little alone-time with my girls, and that meant a lot to me. The relationship I have with them is nothing like my relationship with the kids here. They feel more like family than like students, and I told them how proud I am of their courage, grace and humor. They gave me all the gossip – who has a new baby in the village, which Venetie girl has a crush on which Arctic boy and so on. A has matured so much since last year, and she is standing up straighter, proud of her bright mind and smile. G has grown into her height – she’s become a confident, stunning young woman. P is so much less volatile now, and she lets her kindness show through more. As usual, C is perfectly herself. I’ve really missed them.

Arctic is traveling to Venetie for a rematch in the spring. The girls are determined to give us a warm welcome and show us a good time. I can’t wait to visit and see what they come up with.

 

Shook-up world: What is the value of wilderness?

Like so many people, I am dazed by the events of this week. On Tuesday night I went to bed in tears, shocked and frightened by the outcome of the election. Trump’s campaign always felt like a prank to me, and now it feels like a prank that got out of control and set fire to the house with all of us trapped inside.

My fear stems from the following:

  • We have just sent a message to every secretly bigoted and misogynistic creep on earth that we, as a nation, condone abusive behavior and expressions of prejudice. This, more than anything else, frightens me.
  • I heard yesterday that Mr. Trump has expressed an interest in allying with Russia in Syria. Although I thought I remembered hearing that Russia was no longer backing Assad, I couldn’t find anything in a short online search to confirm that recollection. It is horrifying to think that our country might lend support to a criminal head-of-state who has used chemical weapons against his own people.
  • We have empowered a science-denier to make policy decisions that will have an irreversible impact on the environment.
  • Mr. Trump will have the opportunity to appoint as many as three supreme court justices.
  • Mr Trump will appoint a cabinet. I keep hearing rumors of a Secretary of the Interior with oil interests (Forrest Lucas, Sarah Palin) and an Energy Secretary with financial interests in fracking and in the Dakota Access Pipeline (Harold Hamm). I’m trembling here at the hem of ANWR.
    I understand that our Department of the Interior is responsible for managing federal lands in the best interest of the American people, for industry and recreation as well as conservation, but I am not convinced that the economic and political benefits of developing oil and natural gas are always worth the price we pay.I have not been persuaded that the potential benefits of developing mineral resources in ANWR outweigh the potential cultural and environmental costs. I know that this state runs on oil money and that my job and many, many others depend either directly on the oil industry or on the state budget. I know that it has never been demonstrated that the Porcupine caribou herd would be disrupted by development in the 1002 area. I know that the pipeline needs to maintain a minimum pressure or be permanently dismantled, and that with Prudhoe Bay producing less than in previous years, we need a new source for oil if we want to keep it open. I know that Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski has vowed to open the 1002 area in ANWR for drilling, and there will never be a better opportunity.  I expect the onslaught to be immediate and forceful, and I know that my students and their families are not prepared for it.

I’m trying to channel my anxiety into action. I’m reading endless articles and teaching my class with a renewed passion for civics. I am trying to cultivate a diversity of nuanced opinions among my students, who are usually, to their detriment, of one mind. I told the kids today, as I have been telling them for months, to bring me their voter cards when they turn eighteen and I’ll bake them each a cake to celebrate their power. I want the kids to know how the government works and how to influence it. I want to spend the next four years building up to a huge celebration of the centennial of women’s suffrage. I want to get my students informed about Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline and in contact with native kids, like them, whose environment and heritage may be threatened by oil development. I also want them to understand – really understand – the perspectives of people who don’t share their views, including those who wish to develop oil resources. I have never been so motivated to get my students writing clear, cogent, persuasive essays. We have such a long way to go, though. They are miles behind and not catching up quick.

But, after all, why bother with all of that? What is the value of wilderness?

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Wilderness is valuable for its power to make us feel small. We spend so much time in human-built environments, perfectly made to our scale, that we forget how we diminish in the presence of  mountains and tundra, how we disappear in the course of rivers that churn with mud and power. When I am out there, I am no greater than one of seven-billion ice-crystals lying under an unknowably deep and vast sky.

It is valuable for its beauty, if you believe that beauty has value.

It is valuable for subsistence and cultural diversity, if you believe that subsistence and cultural diversity have value.

It is empowering.
How does it feel to stand in a silent, snow-filled valley, hundreds of miles from anywhere?
It feels like hugging the sun.

It is valuable for its complexity. As Carl Sagan reminds us, “The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together” (thank you, Symphony of Science). We have so much yet to learn from the systems that interconnect in wild places. It is not enough to take pictures and samples to fossilize in a lab somewhere: the complexity of nature demands space, time and variables that cannot be simulated or artificially preserved. By eliminating wilderness, we preclude the full expression of these complex systems and curtail our studies and potential scientific knowledge.

The variation – the biodiversity – that powers the miracle of evolution also powers the miracles of medicine and technology: we look to biology and ecology for answers to our most difficult human challenges, and, without wilderness, those answers have no place to live.

And what about this wilderness? The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? What is its value, specifically? I try to be pragmatic, and I think I am. I can see my way all the way around most political issues. I can see what people who want to develop the resources in the 1002 area see. Economic growth is important. Jobs are important. Energy independence is important. But vast, untouched and untouchable wilderness is inherently valuable for its power to command our respect and awe. Arctic beauty is important, more so as it dwindles. Culture and caribou are important. Unique biological and ecological processes and systems are important. And the only difference that really matters between these things and those things is that these things are available nowhere else in the world.

If by cultivating economic growth, jobs, and energy independence we compromise the biodiversity and cultural diversity of the planet, we pay too high a price.

In other news, ahshii. It’s snowing.

At last.

It happened so fast!

At the moment, I’m in Anchorage with a group of girls from Arctic Village. This is their annual Native Youth Olympics field trip, and I’m the female chaperone, borrowed from the next village over.

There’s no snow on the ground here, and it rained on the way down from Fairbanks yesterday. There are tiny green leaves on the trees.

On Sunday I put the Sassy White Bravo away for the last time this season. When I get back to Venetie in a week and a half, there won’t be snow on the ground. I returned my skis to gym storage, too. It was a hard day, Sunday. It seemed like winter would last forever, and then suddenly it was over.

As a last hurrah, Ben and I and our visiting student teacher, Addie, took the SWB on its most epic adventure so far. We rode out maybe six miles to the north, the farthest I’ve been along that trail, and started a fire. Terri had given us a foil packet of moose meat, so we set it in among the coals to cook while we went skiing.

It was a gorgeous, warm sunny day. The snow was thick and slick and slushy, and we flew over it fast and sure, hatless and gloveless in our t-shirts.

On the way back, I skied behind the snowmachine – a handy way to move a third body, and a lot of fun. You fly back there, bumping over the ice at a ripping ten or fifteen miles per hour. The trail opened up and I practiced skiing off to the side of the machine in an open area that had been solid ice hours earlier. It happened so fast – all of a sudden I was flying face-first into the deep slush. My skis had sunk into the heavy snow and hooked. I pitchpoled and wound up with ice in my teeth.

I was fine and came up laughing. It’s hard to hurt yourself in the deep, thick, pillowy white spring snow.

But oh, it happened so fast, this spring. It’s suddenly almost summer, and the goodbyes have already begun: Goodbye, snow. Goodbye, skiing. Goodbye, kiddoes.

And goodbye, Venetie.

I’m thrilled to announce that I’ll be teaching in Arctic Village next year.

Still. It happened so fast.

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Beautiful northern lights at midnight last week

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Spring Carnival

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the women’s snowshoe race

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skiing on Big Lake

I’m on my way to a new adventure, but I’m savoring every moment I have left with my kids and in the village, and lingering over the small farewells.